“I see the sets as characters,” “Masters of Sex” production designer Michael Wylie says, and though the expression is as common in Hollywood art departments as sexual dysfunction was in midcentury St. Louis, one glance at Wylie’s Emmy-nominated work on Showtime’s period drama is enough to know he means it.
Wylie spoke to TOH! recently about five key sets from the series, created by Michelle Ashford and starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as pioneering sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson.
Washington University Hospital
Much of the action in the series’ first season, which opens in 1956, takes place in the offices and corridors of Washington University Hospital’s obstetrics department, where renowned physician Bill Masters (Sheen) embarks on a controversial, off-the-books sex study with the help of his new assistant, former nightclub singer Virginia Johnson.
Though based on the real-life Masters and Johnson, and developed from Thomas Maier’s eponymous dual biography, “Masters of Sex” often plays fast and loose with the facts—and the production design similarly deploys the “heightened realities” of spreads in Time and Life or the idyllic archival footage of postwar Americana, according to Wylie. It’s unlikely any hospital of the era would have featured a cheery, pistachio-and-creamsicle paint scheme like this one, Wylie says, but that’s exactly the point. “You’re supposed to believe that they live in a time and place where anything is possible.”
The Chancery Park Plaza Hotel
The site of the series’ finest hour, the tense, amorous two-hander, “Fight,” the suite where Bill and Virginia’s affair blossomed over the course of the second season posed significant challenges for Wylie, who cut his teeth on the visually arresting “Pushing Daisies.”
“Hotel rooms were just sad,” he says, having sifted through hundreds of period photographs from the Art Directors Guild’s Research Library in Los Angeles, and the Chancery Park Plaza, located in a suburb of St. Louis, was likely 10 years behind the times, design-wise. Nevertheless, the monotonous, drab confines not only emphasize the furtive nature of Bill and Virginia’s liaisons, conducted under the name Holden; the flat style also focuses our attention, and Bill’s, on Virginia. “She becomes the radiant center of attention in that room,” Wylie says. “All you see is her.”
The Masters and Johnson Clinic (Lobby)
Though the series’ penchant for unexpected leaps forward in time has occasionally been jarring, as much an attempt to escape the constraints of the source material as to goose up the narrative, the second season’s gorgeous, regretful triptych, “Asterion,” dissolves from 1958 to 1959, and then to 1960, in deft, confident strokes. Yet it was limitations of time and money, according to Wylie, which led to the new clinic’s minimalist aesthetic, based on a 1930s Bauhaus building in St. Louis.
“That design came out of a need to do a set really fast and make it sectional and easy to build,” says Wylie. In fact, on the “Masters of Sex” stage at Sony, where Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears) and Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) still had plotlines at Washington University at the time, the crew built 10 feet of the new set for every 10 feet they removed of the old one.
The Masters and Johnson Clinic (Observation Room)
With its microphone and two-way mirror, the observation room creates a frame within the frame that “Masters of Sex” has frequently deployed to superb dramatic effect, not least the upcoming “Two Scents.” This is no coincidence, according to Wylie—though there are always two or three medical technical consultants on set to advise the writers, their conversations with the production designer are weighted in favor of the series’ high style rather that historical exactitude.
“We would always choose the more cinematic option,” Wylie says, and the illicit encounters and painful reckonings that have played out through the glass are the result of that sentiment.
The Masters’ Home (Living Room)
Though Maier’s book describes the Masters’ home as a colonial with white columns in a leafy neighborhood—” all very ‘Lucy and Ricky move to Connecticut,'” to use Wylie’s phrase—the “Masters of Sex” team fell in love with a modern house in New York while shooting the pilot, and the production design evolved from that decision. The subtle changes to the note-perfect midcentury modern set, as the narrative has followed the characters from 1956 to 1966, also reflect Bill Masters’ reluctant transformation from workaholic OB-GYN to (still-workaholic) suburban dad.
“There’s no feminine touches in there at all, at the beginning,” Wylie says, referring to changes in the wallpaper, the kitchen, and the bathrooms. “Now you get the sense that a family lives there and it’s not just Bill Masters’ universe.”
As for a glimpse of the future, Wylie tells me to expect further time jumps, but as you might expect, he prefers to focus on the characters—whose development the sets will surely reflect as much as the march of time.
“Their book is on the market, and they’re getting famous,” he says. “The small-town St. Louis Bill and Virginia are familiar with is going to start to disappear, and their lives are going to be a lot more complicated.”
“Masters of Sex” airs Sundays at 10pm on Showtime. Read Matt Brennan’s Indiewire recaps of the current season here.